A Former State Representative On How To Vote & Act Like A "Climate Citizen"
Kate Knuth, Ph.D., was 25 when she was elected to serve in the Minnesota House of Representatives, one of the youngest nominees in her district's history. It wasn't grand political ambitions or dreams of power and prestige that brought her to government: It was Hurricane Katrina.
"For the first time, I understood that climate change would not just unleash dangerous weather; it was going to rip its way through all of society's imperfections, laying bare our unjust systems in ways that would leave people dead," Knuth writes of watching the coverage of Katrina in her essay in the new climate anthology All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis.
Six years in office and a Ph.D. in conservation sciences later, Knuth is even more concerned about the threat that climate change poses to our society—and even more convinced of the government's responsibility to do something about it.
As we are heading into election week, I called up Knuth to get an insider's take on how voters can support this change by becoming more engaged climate citizens, starting (but certainly not stopping) at the polls.
On why this election is so critical for climate.
According to Knuth (...and a global consortium of researchers who have dedicated their careers to studying the issue), the science is clear: We need to take drastic action on climate change over the next decade, beginning with this election. "This is the chance we get to make a major decisive choice about who is at the decision-making table when it comes to votes and laws and regulations and—really importantly right now—really large sums of money that the government can spend," she says. This means supporting candidates on the federal, state, and local levels who are outspoken about how they plan to work with citizens to cut greenhouse gas emissions and create a more just, equitable environment for all Americans.
The role that local candidates play in environmental change.
While we know all about the presidential candidates at this point, it's important to research the names lower on your ballot too. Knuth explains that a lot of important energy policy and transportation infrastructure decisions are made on the state level, and local district representatives have a say in matters of community density, waste management, etc.
All of these topics trickle down and have real implications for how we live our lives. It's a whole lot easier to compost, bike instead of drive, reduce your plastic waste, or take any other sustainable action when you have a government supporting you. "I can be the most dedicated biker, but if I have terrible infrastructure, it's tough to make those decisions," says Knuth. "We couldn't make those decisions as individuals without these bigger collective decisions through our government."
On how to find a pro-environmental candidate.
A quick roll through a candidate's website should give you a general overview of where they stand on environmental policies. But Knuth recommends going a step further and reaching out with any specific questions you have. "These people are meant to serve you and the broader community, so they should be responsive."
And when you're perusing their sites, pay attention to the language they use. "I would really listen to how legislators describe the people that they serve," she says. "You hear taxpayer or consumer or ratepayer... All of these are facets of people, right? But when we think about who we are and how we define ourselves, the most important thing about me is not being a ratepayer; it's not being a taxpayer; it's not being a consumer. It's being a parent and a wife and a friend and a full, engaged citizen in my community."
On how to stay a "climate citizen" once the election ends.
On that note, the work of supporting climate reform doesn't stop at the polls. To usher in a brighter future, we'll need to take action long after November 3 and become what Knuth calls "climate citizens." Beyond buying eco-friendly stuff, reducing personal waste, and posting on Instagram, being a climate citizen calls for relentlessly pushing for systemic changes in how we value and use our environment. "Citizenship to me is much more about action than status," she says, and it's about "being fully committed to a good life involving a connection to community."
This means sticking up for other people who have historically had to bear the brunt of our warming world—BIPOC and poor folks around the world—however you can. Do you love to start conversations? Maybe you'll be the one who always asks the environmental justice question at your local town hall. Are you crowd shy but love writing? Maybe you'll pivot your work to take on more of a climate bent.
"Dealing with climate change doesn't require one thing," says Knuth. "It requires people to show up in the ways they're good at and the ways they're excited about."
On how to find the courage to continue to show up and speak up.
Putting yourself out there and taking on advocacy work can be intimidating. Knuth has found that leading with curiosity helps: "One of the things I really try to do is have a stance of curiosity when I'm engaging with the world. If someone pushes back or gets angry or frustrated—which happens—I just ask myself, 'Why did they respond that way? Was it something I did? Or are they just frustrated? Are there years of things that have been happening here that I don't really know about yet?'"
Beyond that, celebrating small victories, asking for support where you need it, and reminding yourself that you're not alone can all help build confidence. Most importantly, don't discount the impact you can make—even if you're new to the work. After all, "The people who change things are often the ones who don't know that things can't be changed."
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On holding on to hope.
As our call wrapped up, I asked Knuth for final thoughts on the week ahead. "I'm really nervous about this election," she told me, "but I am also so grateful for the millions of people who have decided to step outside themselves and engage with neighbors or their family. I am so grateful for the young climate activists who have put climate on the agenda in a way that it has not been, ever."
During a divisive time with so many unknowns, this engagement keeps her hopeful that brighter days are ahead: "We can do this. We can have a future in which we all thrive, in which we have racial justice, in which we have climate resilience, in which our kids feel safe in their schools. So I'm grateful that I've seen so many people stepping into that work—and I hope more and more of them will do it. Especially in the next week, but then beyond."
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